Small boy and girl on road

Research has found that dividing children’s toys based on gender can have lasting developmental implications

Many parents are tired of the pink and blue divide in the toy aisles. Just last month, the White House held a conference in toys and media, with many toy manufacturers and experts attending. After feedback, Target announced in 2015 that it would get rid of signs labeling toys for boys or for girls. A UK campaign called  seeks to get retailers to stop categorizing toys and books for one gender only.

Developmental psychologists and sociologists are happy to finally see pushback from parents. Researchers have worried about the impact of having toys that were so segregated by gender for some time, says Lisa Dinella, associate professor at Monmouth University and Principal Investigator of the  Development Laboratory.

Clearly divided pink and blue aisles with dolls and tea sets on one side and trucks and building blocks on the other is actually a pretty recent development. As recently as the 1970s, toys sold in the US were marketed with clear gender distinctions.  

It may seem counterintuitive to see toys become so dramatically gender segregated at a time when, for example, women make up the college students. Brown hypothesizes that whenever there are a lot of cultural changes in one direction, there is a backlash in another direction.

It’s not just the pink and blue boxes that have invaded toy marketing in recent years: it’s also the proliferation of princesses and superheroes.

Dolls for girls in the 1960s had traditional women’s roles at the time – like homemaker and mother – while boys’ action figures had professions like scientist, engineer or cowboy.

In recent years, as women have become a major part of the workforce, you might expect that girls’ dolls would predominantly have professions that mirror those of the working mothers who buy them for their kids. Instead, says Sweet, there has been a move to fantasy roles, with many dolls becoming princesses and popstars and action figures becoming superheroes.

While kids enjoy playing princess and superhero, the roles are “adult ideas of what kids want”, says Sweet. They are “exaggerations of masculinity and femininity”.

For both boys and girls, the occupations of their dolls have become unrealistic, says Sweet, which is unfortunate as dolls give children a chance to try on professions. Unless you are Kate Middleton, the odds are you didn’t grow up to be a princess.

As tastes evolve, all three researchers hope that one day, toys will stop being broken up by gender and will instead be categorized by type, like puzzle toys, dolls or children’s bikes. There would still be dress-up dolls and monster toy trucks in that world, but instead of being just pink or blue and segregated to different aisles, they would come in every color of the rainbow and be marketed to all kids.

Enamul Haque

Enamul Haque

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